I made only one terrible mistake when I attended the Carolina Renaissance Festival Saturday: I allotted half a day.
I hadn't gone for almost a decade, and five hours was plenty last time – but not now.
Anyone attending the 15th edition of this fall event, which runs Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 16, needs to know three things:
1) Take your time. You needn't be there at 10 a.m., when the gates open. But if you were, you could spend all day and not repeat an event.
2) Take your dough. You can get away spending nothing beyond the entrance fee, as all the shows are free. (Every performer passes a tip jar, of course, and hawks CDs and DVDs.) But you'll need at least $2 for games of skill or rides – $5 to ride the elephant or camel, which is $3 for kids under 12 – and you'll eat. A family of four that spends the whole day and eats a hearty lunch can expect to spend $75 beyond the ticket price, even before buying souvenirs.
3) Take a planning device. Shows start promptly all over the 22-acre property; some of the best overlap, and some build on earlier events. To follow the action at the last joust of the day, you need to see the first two. (Said my teenage nephew, anyway. I bagged the joust to watch a pyromaniac.)
No day at the RenFest can be replicated exactly, so mine won't be a template for yours. But here are my impressions:
Best culinary surprise: The turkey legs big as a baby's arm are famous, but the happy discovery was a hot cheese-and-mushroom crepe for $2.50.
Most informational show: “The Ancient Art of Falconry.” Watching a great horned owl sail over onlookers and a black vulture waddle among them (looking for drumsticks in the place it found one two years ago!) was a taste of the wild. If your kid's lucky, he'll be one of the eight who holds the yellow-and-white python.
Best way to pass the hat: Hypnotist Franko told bedazzled subjects they were gigolos and wenches collecting money from people for whom they'd done … er, favors. He told them to be very appreciative – but no touching, alas.
Most appealing impromptu moment: A mute enchantress knelt by the entrance, leaves in her hair and fairy wings on her back, playing the flute and handling small children pebbles sprinkled with pixie dust. “A Midsummer Night's Dream” had come to life.
Second most appealing impromptu moment: The tall, slender magician who towered atop a moving ball, wearing a black bird's mask and waving ebony-colored fans at tiny festivalgoers. He, too, “spoke” only in gestures.
Best show for those who enjoy a dominatrix: Don Juan & Miguel get title billing in their broadly comic, supersonically fast-paced routine. It was lissome Esmeralda, dressed in a low-cut black gown and cracking a whip to snap candles out of Juan's fingers, who made the guy next to me say, “Let's watch this again!”
Show least likely to have dirty jokes: None that I saw. Each performance had sexual double entendres, including the Catholic-themed “Hey Nunnie Nunnie!” (I confess, I laughed as Sister Redempta sang “There Were Five Constipated Men in the Bible.”)
Mind-blowing musical moment: Koninklijke Rijsbouts, a traveling carillon weighing 13 tons and containing 48 bronze bells, is new this year. I felt the ringing performance of “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana” deep in my bones.
Most embarrassing moment for me: Having an elementary schooler tell me the portable sanitation station was not motion-activated: “Ya gotta pump the water with ya feet!”
Most embarrassing moment for another adult: I found The Dungeon, an appropriately musty exhibit of torture implements, well worth $2 for creepiness. But as I went in, a little girl with a painted face and fairy wings burst out, crying “It's gonna give me bad dreams!” Her disappointed father escorted her away.